The Hive Mind of Book Recommendations

We’re in the final three weeks of the semester now, which means my mind has turned toward final assignments, and of course, final grades. Like a lot of schools, mine encourages teachers to write mid- and end-of-term comments, but let’s be honest: those end-of-term comments are hard, especially for graduating seniors. There’s typically little more to say than an Edward R. Murrow-style “Good night, and good luck.” Such gestures always strike me as pat and hollow.

I hate that, because if there’s one thing I’m good at in my teaching, it’s developing a rapport with my students. By the end of a semester, I want them to know I’ve been actively thinking about who they are and what makes them stand out in my mind. I want them to know they matter to me as an individual, enough to warrant some words meant just and only for them.

But still. End of semester, man. My drawer’s out of spoons.

So, to avoid mouthing platitudes at kids who deserve better, I’ve turned to ending Speculative Fiction Studies with a comment in the form of a science fiction or fantasy book recommendation. The rules are simple: I have to be able to articulate why I believe this particular student would like this book, and I’m not allowed to give any repeat recommendations.

One year, I had to write ninety of these.

This year will be easier, with just forty-five in total. And yes, I read a lot of sf, but I’m a big believer in the power of the sf fandom hive mind.

That’s where you come in.

In the comments section below, pitch me a science fiction, fantasy, or other speculative book you’ve read and loved and would happily recommend to another reader (particularly, perhaps, a precocious teenager). What jumped out to you about this book? Is there a particular type of reader it would appeal to?  Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read, fit into any genre sweet spots of yours?

Who knows — you may help me find, or remember, just the right fit for a student who’s a little hard to peg, or whose reading interests are very different from my own. And even if you don’t, we’ll get into a good discussion here.


The Author Is In: ‘Office Hours’ at the SFWA Nebulas Conference!

This May will mark my second trip to the SFWA Nebula awards conference, this year in Pittsburgh, PA, and my first experience being part of the programming.

So, what will I be doing? The answer is, maybe more than this, as the schedule is finalized, but for now, I’ll be part of their “Office Hours” programming. If you’re coming to Pittsburgh and looking for someone with a knack for the following, I’m your Huckleberry:

  • Insights into teaching sf/f & running successful workshop groups
  • Blowing up story concepts
  • World-building from a random theoretical premise (scientific or others; try me – you’ll be surprised)
  • Flash fiction critiques
  • Fight scenes & hand-to-hand combat
  • Refining dialogue
  • Tea (yes, tea is a skill set, and I have the receipts, my friends)

I hope to see lots of you there.

Look for a follow-up post from me in the coming weeks about programming I’ll be part of at Readercon this July in Quincy, MA. It’s going to be a very busy spring and summer!


Sometimes, You Need to Ask Better Questions

I was more than a little nervous, going into work on Thursday morning, April 20, because my Speculative Fiction Studies students were speaking with Amal El-Mohtar. I was excited, grateful, hopeful, and yes. Terribly, deeply nervous. I should point out that there’s nothing about Amal that should make anyone fearful, apart from her talent, her enthusiasm, her accomplishments, her erudition, her grace —

No, scratch that. I was anxious about my students – and, let’s be honest, me – having a good showing with Amal because she’s very much to be admired. One never likes to let down one’s heroes. So I told myself what my mother always told me about fear and success: “You only feel so awful because you care so much. It would be wrong if you didn’t.”

My students read Amal’s “The Truth About Owls” as part of their homework and were ready to speak to her through a Twitter AMA on the hashtag #AMALowl. It seemed a perfect plan: low-impact ‘face time’ between a writer and students familiar with her work, with the technology free and practically foolproof. But though the questions the students shared were thoughtful and sincere, and Amal dove into answers as fast as anyone could expect a lone writer on a mission to do, the disconnection of an asynchronous conversation felt a bit wrong.  In a previous, totally spontaneous AMA, Alyssa Wong and Brooke Bolander had been able to tag-team their way through half a class period of discussion. Two against twenty had worked out much better than twenty-to-one odds, as I might have realized if I had used my tactical brain more and my fangirl brain less.

Fortunately, in a quick DM session after, Amal raised the issue that would turn things around for the afternoon: “That was super cool! I hope the answers were ok! I’m sliiiightly regretting not actually doing this over skype because some of those questions definitely deserved more thought-through answers! . . .What do you think pedagogy-wise? I will totally do what’s easier for you / better for class!”

It was the right question — a better question than “Will this go okay?”, which had been the only place I could make my brain focus all morning. Instead, Amal asked what it would take to make the teachable moment itself better. She assumed (rightly) that it would be okay. And it had been. But she also sensed it could have been better.

So, we switched tracks and arranged a Skype call for the afternoon.

As the students on my side of the call gathered (freely sharing expectant looks, without a webcam to capture them all), they looked over the questions they’d written with Twitter in mind and started revising on the fly. More words, nuances, ideas. Amal was a gem, putting up with bad audio and not seeing her audience’s faces as if it was part of the fun.

I wish she could have seen the kids, because they were all smiling.

The conversation really broke open about five minutes in, when a student walked up to my laptop mike and asked, “Why did you decide to leave it ambiguous whether Anisa’s power is real or not?”

It was a joy to watch Amal’s face, already smiling, fill with a sudden light.

“That is. . . you know, that is actually a great question, because usually people want to know which it is –is there a power or not? And I don’t like to answer that because you’re right. I did that on purpose. And I guess it’s because. . .”

And on she went, the student nodding back at her the whole time.

If only she could have seen it.

It’s not often readers have the chance to ask a writer why they make certain choices. But that shouldn’t keep us from asking ourselves different, better questions as we read or work. The student could tell that if Amal had wanted her audience to have a clear sense of what was and wasn’t real in her story, she’d have written that way. She’s well more than capable. So the important question clearly wasn’t what’s the binary ‘truth’ in “The Truth About Owls.” The question was, what does the story gain in its ambiguity? What does it offer its reader, through whatever lens we pick up?

When I write, what questions am I asking myself, and how will they help me get to something beyond the next plot beat? What questions do I hope my readers would ask me, if I were the one on the other side of a chat screen? It’s something I’ll be thinking about tonight as I settle in to draft another chapter of The Nine’s sequel.

At that moment, with Amal almost laughing at the simple beauty of a better question, my daylong nervousness finally washed away.  Between Amal’s question about what would make things better for the students, and my students’ questions about what they’d read, it was clear everyone in the room had gone beyond the obvious to the essential.

That’s what the best writers coax their readers into doing.

Thanks for showing us that, Amal.



Finding Yourself in SF: On Dancing With Unicorns & Other Essential Experiences

Last spring, I attended the SWFA Nebula conference for the first time, spending three and a half days at the Palmer House Hilton in the company of some of the most charming, interesting, funny, and insightful people around: sf people. At a panel discussion of Octavia Butler’s legacy, I asked a question about introducing my students to her writing, looking for suggestions about where to start. As it turned out, how I prefaced the question would make me a little infamous that weekend. “I have the best job in the world,” I said. “I’m sorry, everyone else, but you can stop looking. It’s already taken.” And I told the panelists about my students, about teaching sff and creative writing, and less than ten minutes later had people introducing themselves to me by saying they wanted to meet the Lady with the Best Job in the World.

That title lasted the rest of the weekend: “Oh, hey! You’re the one with the best job in the world, right? I’m Lawrence.” And so on. No one questioned it. The people who used that ad hoc label accepted it as true and real, and by extension, me as true and real. It’s hard to express how much that meant to me, a writer with a brand-new book contract and very little idea of what the road ahead would look like.

In fairness, I don’t own the best job in the world entirely on my own merits. I have excellent students, a creative and supportive teaching staff around me, and some truly amazing professionals in my field to lean on. One of the ways I can confidently point to having the best job in the world comes around once a year, in the form of Michael Damian Thomas and Lynne Thomas of Uncanny Magazine.

Two years running, the Thomases have come to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, my professional home, and spoken to dozens of students in our Speculative Fiction Studies class. That by itself makes for a great day at the office, but the part that makes having Uncanny’s support so powerful — and the part that makes my day job the actual best job — is what they give my students. “Behind the scenes” knowledge about publishing and writing. Personal anecdotes about their struggles and failures, and the winding road that shaped them into editors of one of the most successful sf semiprozines running today. Memories of their own experiences as readers, and the power of writing as a teacher of empathy and humanity.

Most of all, Michael and Lynne give my students a sense of belonging every bit as powerful as the one I felt shaking hands with people at the 2016 Nebulas — authors and editors I admired so much, I was left fumbling in their presence. The Thomases, like the professionals who unironically greeted me as the lady with the “best job,” look my students in the eyes, listen to their questions, and talk (and get talked to) beyond reasonable human endurance, actively becoming allies to anyone and everyone in need of thoughtful support.

Here’s one story about such a moment from their most recent visit, Friday April 7, 2017.

After a long luncheon with some select students and faculty, and following a long morning of presentations, Lynne and Caitlin retired to the department offices we’d set aside as Uncanny Base Camp. Michael trailed after, surrounded by students like some sfnal philosopher at the Agora. They talked sf culture. Conventions. Networking. Contracts. How to build your voice and audience as a writer. Everything. Inch by inch, Michael managed to gain ground toward the English department door, but stopped just at the threshold with eight students gathered around, still full of questions, anxieties, and hungers. Once Caitlin was settled, Lynne came out, too, and it was all I could do to get them each a cup of tea, so few were the breaks in avid conversation.

An hour passed this way. Just standing in a hallway, filling the air with absolute enthusiasm for the genre and the industry. And, more importantly, rewarding my students for their enthusiasm by showing them it is normal and good to be curious and feel passion.

Once the student group finally realized there was a chance they were about to miss OTHER classes, they dispersed.

All except for one.

That student lingered another hour, suddenly converting what was supposed to have been a break for the Thomases into a spontaneous interview about his possible future as a writer of color who didn’t wish to be understood through color alone. That’s a tough topic for anyone to field, let alone in conversation with an almost complete stranger, but Michael and Lynne saw it as an opportunity rather than a landmine. They shared anecdotes about writers of color they’d worked with, experiences that united and (sometimes) divided them, ways these authors had framed their work in and out of the context of race and identity. They talked about college, and career planning, and not sweating the small stuff on the way to bigger stuff. At any moment, they could have looked at the clock on the wall and said, “Kid, we’ve been talking about three hours total here. We could use a break.”

But they didn’t, because for this student, this might be his only chance to have this conversation, and that took precedent. They saw him — really saw him — and knew both that he had value, and that he needed to understand that he was valued by them, specifically.

All of this happened because Michael and Lynne saw in the chance to spend a day talking to gifted high schoolers about sf a chance to invest in the genre’s future. Students of every background and description filled the auditorium where they spoke, waylaid them in the halls, and wrote them thank-you notes the Monday after, because they knew they’d been given a gift — one I get to take a tiny bit of credit for because so many in sf have been so generous to me.

I aim to pay them back, someday.



Inspirations for THE NINE

I have the great privilege of teaching creative writing professionally, which means I spend nearly as much time fielding questions about writing from my students as actually reading their work — or writing my own, for that matter.

Often, my students agonize over their work being “too much like” other things. If someone mentions during workshop that so-and-so’s short story reminds them of [Fill in the the Blank], there’s this automatic fear reaction from the author. They don’t want to be seen as derivative, un-creative, or (God forbid) a plagiarist. I’ve made the mistake of drawing parallels between x and y when talking about student writing, only to find the compliment I thought I’d carefully crafted sent the poor kid plunging into despair

I can get behind a mortal dread of and aversion toward plagiarism, certainly. But fearing the way your work has been shaped by other things you’ve read, or seen, or just plain loved? That’s one of the best parts about writing. It’s a change to talk about the worlds you’ve absorbed, to reimagine things in combination with your imagination.

There are many works I could cite as key influencers for The Nine and broader world. Some of them I had explicitly in mind as a wrote, and others simply insinuated themselves into my smallest writing gestures, the way you absorb the habits of an old friend as you talk over coffee, mirroring them without quite consciously realizing it.

Back-cover blurbs can only tell you so much about what to expect from a book, and with The Nine‘s release still far off on November 14, maybe you want to do a little homework and find out more about what’s in store. If you’ve liked or loved any of the following, then there might just be something in The Nine for you.

  • Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series –  Do you like vast political conspiracies with a theological twist? How about plucky orphans, shape-shifting soul mates, powerful witches, and giant sentient war bears? Treachery, love, Pyrrhic sacrifice, and battles waged across multiple layers of reality? If you don’t like these things, it’s safe to say I don’t understand you at all, because the collusion of theology and science that frames Pullman’s world was the inspiration for the Ecclesiastical Commission and the skullduggery that draws in the heroes of The Nine.
  • Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings – Not a novel by any means, and not a collection of short stories, Borges’ Book is a fantastical collection of coy, tantalizing encyclopedia entries about fantastical beings from all over the globe. Look up the entry on the Lamed Wufniks to see the first breadcrumb that sent me down this trail.
  • Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen –  As a life-long comics reader (most especially the X-Men books from the late eighties to the early aughts), I have an indelible interest in super heroes and other characters living strange, secret lives in the margins of things. Moore and Gibbons’ story follows super heroes after they’ve put the life behind them (to varying degrees of success), exploring the damage they’ve done to themselves and the impossibility of outliving or running your past.
  • Joss Whedon’s Firefly – A space western science fiction television series? As an inspiration for a dark clockpunk fantasy? Yup. And here’s why: Whedon’s talent for snappy, bantering dialogue that offers tiny peeks behind the curtain of backstory has long been a model for me, and I’m a sucker for his theme (consistent across nearly every large-scale project he’s touched) of “found families.” You learn as much about these characters’ relationships from what they DON’T say as what they do, which remains a guiding principle in my own writing, years after I watched the series for the first time.
  • Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence novels – There’s so much to love in Max Gladstone’s writing, it’s hard to sum up its influence over me in a few short sentences. It has so much to recommend it. Rich, multi-textured and multi-cultural settings across a vast globe we’ve yet to see explored to its farthest horizons, certainly. A brilliant, gutsy fusion of technology, magic, and law as the motive apparatus of government and economy, absolutely. But often overlooked, especially in the shadow of other authors who use vast casts of characters, like George R.R. Martin, is his ability to use a variety of point of view characters in close third person, bobbing the reader between and among different perspectives of the plot, with each character’s emotions and perspectives as clear and compelling as the last. My critique partners have compared by use of multiple third person perspectives to GRRM, but it’s really Gladstone I had most in mind.

There are, of course, a dozen other influences on my writing, large and small, I could name – Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards Sequence, Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms all spring to mind. But the headliners of this post are truly where I’ve begged, borrowed, and been inspired most.